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On a refreshingly brisk, beautifully clear fall evening, Amos Decker was surrounded by dead bodies. Yet he wasn’t experiencing the electric blue light sensation that he usually did when confronted by the departed.
There was a perfectly good reason for this: None of these were recent deaths.
He was back in his hometown of Burlington, Ohio, an old factory city that had seen better days. He had recently been in another Rust Belt town, Baronville, Pennsylvania, where he had narrowly escaped death. If he had his druthers, he would have avoided such minefields for the foreseeable future, maybe the rest of his life.
Only right now he didn’t have a choice.
Decker was in Burlington because today was his daughter Molly’s fourteenth birthday. Under normal circumstances, this would have been a happy occasion, a cause for joy. But Molly had been murdered, along with his wife, Cassie, and his brother-in-law, Johnny Sacks. This devastating event had happened shortly before her tenth birthday, when Decker found them all dead in their home.
Gone forever. Taken from life in the most outrageous manner possible by a deranged mind hell-bent on violence. Their killer was no longer among the living, but that was of absolutely no solace to Decker, though he’d been instrumental in ending that life.
That was why his birthday visit was at a cemetery. No cake, and no presents. Just fresh flowers on a grave to replace ones long dead from a previous visit.
He figured he would be here for every one of Molly’s birthdays until he joined his family six feet under. That was his long-term plan. He had never contemplated any other.
He shifted his weight on the wood and wrought-iron bench next to the twin graves, for daughter lay next to mother. The bench had been gifted by the Burlington Police Department where Decker had once toiled, first as a beat cop and later as a homicide detective. On it, tarnished by weather, was a brass plaque that read: In memory of Cassie and Molly Decker.
There was no one else in the small cemetery other than Decker’s partner at the FBI, Alex Jamison. More than a dozen years younger than the mid-fortyish Decker, Jamison stood a respectful distance away, allowing her partner to visit his family in solitude.
Once a journalist, Jamison was now a fully fledged, duly sworn-in FBI special agent, having graduated from the Bureau’s Training Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Under a prior arrangement, she had been sent immediately back to the task force where she and Decker were members, along with two other veteran agents, Ross Bogart and Todd Milligan.
Sitting next to the graves, Decker cursed his condition of hyperthymesia. The perfect recall had been initiated by a wicked blindside hit on an NFL playing field that triggered a traumatic brain injury. Decker awoke from a coma with the ability to remember everything and the inability to forget anything. It seemed like a wonderful attribute, but there was a distinct downside to the condition.
For him, the passage of time would never deaden the details of painful memories. Like the one he was confronted with presently. For the overwhelmingly intense manner in which he recalled their deaths, Cassie and Molly might as well have been laid to rest today instead of four years ago.
He read the names and inscriptions on the tombstones, though he knew by heart what they said. He had come here with many things he wanted to say to his family, but now he inexplicably suffered from a complete failure to articulate any of them.
Well, maybe not so inexplicably. The brain injury that had given him perfect recall had also changed his personality. His social skills had gone from high to quite low. He had trouble voicing his emotions and difficulty dealing with people.
In his mind’s eye he conjured first the image of his daughter. It was sharply in focus—the curly hair, the smile, the cheeks that rode so high. Then the image of his wife, Cassie, appeared—the anchor of their family, the one who had kept Decker from succumbing to his condition, forcing him to interact with others, compelling him to come as close as possible to the man he used to be.
He winced in pain because it actually physically hurt to be so close to them, because they were dead and he was not. There were many days, perhaps most, when he simply could not accept that state of affairs.
He glanced in the direction of Jamison, who was leaning against a broad oak about a hundred feet away. She was a good friend, an excellent colleague, but absolutely powerless to help him through what he was facing now.
He turned back to the graves, knelt, and placed the bundles of flowers he had brought on each of the sunken plots.
Decker looked up to see an older man walking slowly toward him. He had materialized out of the dusk of elongating shadows. As he drew closer, the man almost seemed a ghost himself, so very painfully thin, his features deeply jaundiced.
Jamison had seen the man coming before Decker did, and had started striding toward them. It could simply be someone from the town whom Decker knew. Or it might be something else. Jamison knew that crazy things tended to happen around Amos Decker. Her hand went to the butt of the pistol riding in a holster on her right hip. Just in case.
Decker eyed the man. Aside from his unhealthy appearance, the fellow was shuffling along in a way that Decker had seen before. It wasn’t solely due to age or infirmity. It was the walk of someone accustomed to wearing shackles when moving from point A to point B.
He’s a former prisoner, speculated Decker.
And there was another thing. As he sometimes did, Decker was seeing a color associated with the man. This was due to his also having synesthesia, which caused him to pair colors with unusual things, like death and numbers.
The color tag for this gent was burgundy. That was a new one for Decker.
What the hell does burgundy mean?
“Who are you?” he asked, rising to his feet and brushing the dirt from his knees.
“Not surprised you don’t recognize me. Prison takes it outta you. Guess I have you to thank for that.”
So he was incarcerated.
Jamison also heard this and picked up her pace. She actually half drew her pistol, afraid that the old man was there to exact some sort of revenge on Decker. Her partner had put many people behind bars in his career. And this fellow was apparently one of them.
Decker looked the man up and down as he came to a stop about five feet away. Decker was a mountain of a man, standing six-five and tipping the scale at just about three hundred pounds. With Jamison’s encouragement and help in getting him to exercise and eat a healthier diet, he had lost over a hundred pounds in the last two years. This was about as “lean” as he was ever going to be.
The old man was about six feet tall, but Decker figured he barely weighed a hundred and forty pounds. His torso was about as wide as one of Decker’s thighs. Up close, his skin looked brittle, like aged parchment about to disintegrate.
Hacking up some phlegm, the man turned to the side and spit it into the consecrated ground. “You sure you don’t recognize me? Don’t you got some kind of weird-ass memory thing?”
Decker said, “Who told you that?” “Your old partner.”
The man nodded. “She was the one who told me you might be here.”
“Why would she do that?”
“My name’s Meryl Hawkins,” said the man, in a way that seemed also to carry an explanation as to why he was here.
Decker’s jaw fell slightly.
Hawkins smiled at this reaction, but it didn’t reach his eyes. They were pale and still, with perhaps just a bit of life left in- side them.
“Now you remember me, right?”
“Why are you out of prison? You got life, no parole.”
Jamison reached them and put herself between Decker and Hawkins.
Hawkins nodded at her. “You’re his new partner, Alex Jamison. Lancaster told me about you too.” He glanced back at Decker. “To answer your question, I’m no longer in prison ’cause I’m terminal with cancer. One of the worst. Pancreatic. Survival rate past five years is for shit, they tell me, and that’s with chemo and radiation and all that crap, none of which I can afford.” He touched his face. “Jaundice. You get this, it’s way too late to kick it. And it’s metastasized. Big word, means the cancer’s eating me up everywhere. Brain too now. It’s the last inning for me. No doubt about it, I’m done. Hell, maybe a week at best.”
“Why is that a reason to release you?” asked Jamison.
Hawkins shrugged. “They call it compassionate release. Inmate usually has to file for it, but they came to my cell with the paperwork. I filled it out, they got doctors to okay it, and there you go. See, the state didn’t want to foot the bill for my treatments. I was in one of those private prisons. They mark the bill up to the state, but it doesn’t all get reimbursed. Gets expensive. Hurts their bottom line. They figure I’m harmless now. I went into prison when I was fifty-eight. Now I’m seventy. Look like I’m a hundred, I know. I’m all jacked up with drugs just to walk and talk. After I leave here, I’m going to be throwing up for a few hours and then take enough pills to sleep a bit.”
Jamison said, “If you’re on prescription painkillers, somebody’s helping you.”
“Didn’t say they were prescription, did I? As a matter of fact, they’re not. But it’s what I need. Not like they’re putting me back in prison because I’m buying street drugs. I cost too much.” He chuckled. “If I’d known that, I woulda got sick years ago.”
“Do you mean they don’t provide any help for you on the outside?” asked Jamison incredulously.
“They said a hospice place would take me, but I got no way to get there. And I don’t want to go there. I want to be here.” Hawkins stared at Decker.
“What do you want from me?” asked Decker.
Hawkins pointed his finger at him. “You put me in prison. But you were wrong. I’m innocent.”
“Don’t they all say that?” noted Jamison skeptically.
Hawkins shrugged again. “I don’t know about anybody else but me.” He glanced back at Decker. “Lancaster thinks I’m innocent.”
“I don’t believe that,” said Decker.
“Ask her. It’s why she told me where you were.” He paused and looked at the dark sky. “You got another chance to get it right. Maybe you can do it while I’m still alive and kicking. If not, that’s okay, so long as you get there. It’ll be my legacy,” he added with a weak grin.
“He’s with the FBI now,” interjected Jamison. “Burlington and your case are no longer his jurisdiction.”
Hawkins looked nonplussed. “Heard you cared about the truth, Decker. Did I hear wrong? Come a long way for nothing if that’s so.”
When Decker didn’t answer, Hawkins pulled out a slip of paper. “I’ll be in town the next couple of nights. Here’s the address. Maybe I’ll see you, maybe I won’t. But if you don’t come, well, fuck you from the hereafter.”
Decker took the paper but still said nothing.
Hawkins glanced at the twin graves. “Lancaster told me about your family. Glad you found out who killed ’em. But I suppose you still felt guilt, though you were innocent. I can damn well relate.”
Hawkins turned and walked slowly back between the graves until the darkness swallowed him whole.
Jamison turned to Decker. “Okay, I know nothing about this, but it’s still nuts. He’s just taunting you, making you feel guilty. And I can’t believe the guy would come here and butt in while you’re trying to . . . trying to spend time with your family.”
Decker looked down at the slip of paper. It was clear from his features that something akin to doubt had just now crept into his mind.
Jamison watched him, resignation spreading over her features. “You’re going to see him, aren’t you?”
“Not until I see someone else first.”
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